The Scottish actress Pollyanna McIntosh is a statuesque elegant brunette and evidently in interviews she is also quite intelligent, even witty. The Woman she plays in Lucky McKee’s eponymous 2011 film could not be more of a contrast. One of the younger actors in the film said that it was quite odd on the set. She would one minute be jocular, pleasant company, then the moment would come when she would hit some interior switch and you wouldn’t want to stand anywhere near her. In a brilliant performance, the kind never recognized by the gatekeepers of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pollyanna turns herself into the embodiment of the feral being.
The film itself is filled with unresolved ambiguities. The family that ‘takes her in’ is eventually revealed to be a repository of psychotic dysfunction to the extreme. The father’s desire to civilize her would be comical if the mission were not taken on with such edgy sociopathic verve by actor Sean Bridgers. There is a scene where the Woman, is being baited and restrained in a dark shed. Pollyanna’s unnerving, tearful, tortured stare at the man, her captor, and his humiliated, yet enabling, wife (another stunning performance by Angela Bettis) is laced with pure venom with slightest trace of something that looks like sympathy for the battered spouse. But commiseration it is not.
But that nightmarish glower turns out to be the central image of the film. This Woman is powerful. But she has also been detached from civilization, completely. While the film clearly states that she is still human, yet in her feral nature she has reverted to a truly brutal state. Her language reduced to snarls. Her actions nearly all based on the purest animal instincts. When she is freed by the molested daughter, she surfaces into the light of day, meanwhile a hitherto unseen daughter caged as a feral dog girl, is torturing, and eating, a woman who has tried to intervene in the molested daughter’s situation. One half expects the Woman to rescue the other damaged females. This would be the false empowerment message so prevalent in pop culture. But the resolution is far more ambiguous than that. One thing becomes clear: Once you lose the civilizing of humanity it doesn’t come back. Or as in Apocalypse Now “never get out of the boat”.
And this observation holds up under deeper scrutiny. Jack Ketchum, the screenwriter of this stark opus, Lucky McKee, our director, and Pollyanna McIntosh have all done quite a bit of homework. There have indeed been feral humans, wild children who have lost their language, lost and found derelicts of humanity. As much as I enjoyed the film Road Warrior (Mad Max 2), one flaw was the conceit that that the snarling feral child would end up as the polished narrator of the film. As we now know such a thing is impossible. We have since discovered that there is a window in childhood for learning speech and and grammar, and if something interrupts that process you may learn words later, you may be human, but you will not be delivering a valedictory speech any time before your headstone is prepared.
Perhaps the most famous feral child was that of Victor of Aveyron; a boy of around 12 years old who was discovered in the woods of southern France at the end of the 18th Century. He had obviously been abandoned at some point and had been foraging in the wild. He was taken in and attempts were made to educate him. He eventually learned to live again among humans in a manner approximating standard living. But he could never really speak grammatically, though he could communicate in a form of sign language.
Another recent case had a sadder outcome. This the story ‘Genie’ (real name Susan Wiley), a girl discovered in suburban Southern California in 1970 at the age of 12, imprisoned in an empty room by her father and mother and strapped to a potty chair for her entire life. The father, who immediately committed suicide when the mother finally brought the girl into the open, would not allow the girl to be spoken to. Hence she lived in a strange decivilized, socially isolated state. Again she was nearly mute. Yet she radiated a certain kind of empathy, and had a great effect upon those that came into contact with her, even though her sanitary habits were quite appalling. Unfortunately most of those people were researchers who realized that they had discovered a rare specimen of what scientists call the forbidden experiment. For you see you can’t really experiment on children to see what happens when…
But here was a child raised without language. And who was adopted and abandoned by the scientific community, who I’m sure told themselves they had the best of intentions yet used her to receive grants to study human language. And when the grants ran out so did the commitment. The mother, not exactly a trustworthy individual, then resurfaced and took her back. Eventually Genie was placed into a home, where she remains today. To watch the old documentary on her or read a book about her is to feel both the sting of regret for her pitiful treatment and to briefly come into contact with a strange luminous creature who sadly was dropped and discarded.
(Interestingly there is a girl who recently made a set of photographs of herself as Genie. She claims to not want to offend anyone. Yet in her erotic fetishization of Genie she clearly is romanticizing the wild child once again. Trying to tap into the unearthly purity of this misused human being.)
Another feral case from the 1990’s is that the dog-girl, Oxana Malaya of Ukraine, who was the product of such an abusive, rural, impoverished, alcoholic home that she simply crawled out of her home and lived as dog in the dog pen for years, and she took on many canine characteristics. A video shows her canine behavior in what at first glimpse seems kind of cute, then really is quite disturbing.
The most recent story from 2007 is the only one that might have a good ending. It is the story of Danielle, who was found in a suburban Florida home, locked in squalor for the first seven years of her life by a really stressed out single mother. She has since been adopted by a family that really tries to give her the love she needs, though the mother has protested that she was indeed quite fit to raise her. Again the speech capacities are severely diminished, again the sanitary habits beyond human tolerance. And again there is some mysterious kind of communication that is quite unique. Yet this family has really striven to show this wild child love, the crucial ingredient. Dani has been ‘house trained’ and is slowly learning to communicate. We will have to see if that makes a difference. I suspect it will.
There is much more to each of these stories and I recommend investigating them more thoroughly. Each story highlights what happens when a human is truly left to the wild, beyond the pale of humanity. Lucky McKee’s film The Woman clearly has reference to these, and many more stories. And while The Woman is a seriously intense horror film, it makes some very subtle points about human nature and our dream of a wild life.
Since the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there has existed a dream of completely instinctual freedom and freedom unconditioned by civilization. In a recent book of edgy eco-politics, Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, he argues for the eventual destruction of civilization. He sees this as a good. Yes it will cost something. But it is a necessity to free ourselves from all of the corporate greed and technological enslavement. The book is fully supping at Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s table. He points out that we fear the end of civilization because we have been presented false fears of total barbarism.
Well breakdowns may come. But what Jensen has done is to equate the world we now inhabit with civilization. Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum were much more equivocal about that. Essentially the question one is left with at the end of The Woman runs something like this. Can this family, the ‘civilized’ folks, in any way really be considered civilized? And fortunately the film does not present us with a romanticized view of Pollyanna’s portrayal of the Woman. Like the pied piper she leads the damaged children off into the woods. But whatever happens… it will not be pretty. The answer isn’t in the woods either. Humanity fled the darkness of the woods for a reason. Then we created the darkness of the cities, but we hoped they would provide security. And so we created the internet to help us mollify the perils of human society, and we created another stranger darkened realm. (Although one painted with smiley faces.) :)
Is the human being staring alone at the screen a ‘civilized’ person? Maybe the real question is this: Can the alienated 21st citizen, denizen, netizen, whatever we are in this 21st Century postmodern society, still find the means to be civil in the loneliness of cyberspace? C.S. Lewis is his book A Preface to Paradise Lost thought not. In 1942 Lewis wrote that indeed already by his time we had lost the decorum and dignity of true civility. That we had instead become the barbarians outside the Wall of true civilization. “Some are outside the Wall because they are barbarians who cannot get in; but others have gone out beyond it of their own will in order to fast and pray in the wilderness. ‘Civilization’ – by which I here mean barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power – hates civility from below; sanctity rebukes it from above.”
Indeed too much of our civilization is a kind of high-tech barbarism. And yet to learn to read, to cultivate a sacrificial sense of the arts, to build more than sad bleached suburban huts, to have manners and a sense of real civility; Can we afford to dream of losing these altogether to remedy our ills? There is no remedy in the feral return to the wild. And there is little wilderness to actually return to. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dream of a return to nature is over. The anadromous answer lies in the humble recreation of real civilization, a civil world in the small cracks of disorder.
John Donne said something in the early 17th Century in Meditation XVII from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.
“Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
And it is not only the toll of death we must attend to. The bell reminds us of a past when the sound of a bell itself held a very deep meaning.